Squandering a Town Center Opportunity?

BELLAIRE, Texas – (By Michelle Leigh Smith, Realty News Report) – Opposition is emerging over plans to develop a three-story medical building on the key tract in the planned “Urban Village Downtown District” of the city of Bellaire.

The plans for a Monday-through-Friday medical building do not comply with the zoning for the Bellaire downtown district, say some residents of the Bellaire municipality. (See zoning wordage footnote below.)

The Urban Village zoning encourages walkable mixed-use development with restaurants, dining, and entertainment. Multi-story development with residential above street-level is recommended in Bellaire’s downtown plan for the commercial area which lies about a half mile west of Loop 610.

Rapidly moving toward a City Council vote, the proposed plan for 100,000-square-foot professional building for Methodist Hospital is not in keeping with the downtown village zoning intent, some residents say.

Does the Medical Building Comply with Zoning Definition of a Downtown Village?

 “If you read the definition of the (Urban Village Downtown District), this doesn’t meet it at all,” commented Bellaire attorney Wesley Wright and partner Molly Abshire at Wright & Abshire. “If the City Council plan followed their own rules, and stated goals, this would not be on the table.”

The proposed Methodist Hospital project is planned for the site of the former Randalls store at the northwest corner of S. Rice Avenue and  Bellaire Blvd.

“This is the centerpiece of Bellaire. Their proposal makes no sense,” Wright says. “Within two miles, Methodist is all over the Texas Medical Center. We don’t need it.”

Opponents say the Methodist development is better suited for Bellaire’s Loop 610 frontage where a number of medical organizations have been congregating in recent years. Loop 610 is Bellaire’s de facto medical district and has been called “TMC2” on an informal basis.

“When I mention (the Methodist proposal) to people, they just can’t believe Bellaire is thinking about putting a medical center in the middle of downtown,” says Rachel Crochet, Broker/Owner of Rachel Crochet Properties of Bellaire. “We have to fight the Methodist medical center and give it our best shot. I have told the Council and Mayor to have Methodist go up on 610 or on the old Chevron site and not in the middle of Bellaire, where we are trying to make it a walkable downtown with a small town feel with shops and restaurants. This is how the (Urban Village Downtown District) is described. A medical building with a big garage is certainly not that.”

This Methodist/Randalls decision is viewed as a fork-in-the-road point where long-held hopes for a walkable town center could be killed forever.

“This is one of those choices that will seriously impact the future of Bellaire,” says Jane McNeel, a Bellaire resident. “I have nothing against Methodist, but I don’t want to see a huge block of a building in the center of downtown Bellaire. Those types of buildings belong on the perimeter of a small city, not in a prime location.”

A medical building is closed every weekend – it’s not a downtown catalyst

The shuttered 32,000-SF Randall’s store on the three-acre parcel is expected to be demolished under the Methodist plan. It was built in the mid-1950s as a Weingarten’s grocery – a near-historic food merchant that fed Bellaire families for decades.

The Randalls property is now owned by Kimco Realty, which acquired the Weingarten Realty company in 2021. Kimco plans to lease the site to Methodist Hospital. The commitments and exact parameters of the existing agreement currently in place between Kimco and Methodist are unclear.

Methodist is no stranger to Bellaire. In August 2019, it was announced that Methodist leased 100,812 SF in a former Chevron office building at Bellaire Place, the redeveloping Chevron campus at Fournace and Loop 610 in north Bellaire. However, Methodist never moved into the office building and and the office space it leased was put up for sublease about two years later.

The Bellaire Place campus at Fournace has plenty of available land and the new Methodist building should be constructed there, instead of in the heart of downtown Bellaire, some citizens say.

“Bellaire Place on the 30-acre former Chevron property is just as convenient for the Methodist doctors,” comments resident Michele Arnold. “It would also be just as convenient to commute. In many ways, they would have even greater space and a parking garage has already been built, alleviating the need to encroach on existing green space in the heart of our city.”

The existing Urban Village Downtown District zoning also encourages “land assembly and master-planned development.” The  city’s aspiration for master-planning requires land planning that involves more than one block at a time. Piecemeal development will not produce the desired master-planned result in Bellaire, which is bisected by  Bissonnet Street,  a road making a large diagonal cut through the town. A traditional Main Street and grid-pattern streets did not materialize in downtown Bellaire, which has an estimated population of 17,000.

Resident Jackie Georgiou has raised the idea of improving connectivity in downtown Bellaire with a pedestrian bridge to knit downtown blocks together and improve walkability in a nudge toward more expansive urban planning.

With Randalls site, the master-planning ideal could be extended to parcels that abut the property. Does the multi-lane, drive-thru bank adjacent to Randalls property contribute to the walkable urban character described in the city’s Urban Village Downtown District zoning?

By no means, is approval of the controversial medical office by Methodist Hospital – or the destruction of the of Randalls building – a done deal. Mayor Andrew Friedberg says he is waiting to hear from citizens and other city leaders before taking a public stand on the Methodist issue.

A city-wide meeting with the Mayor and City Council is scheduled for July 17. But when the city signs an agreement on the crucial Randalls tract, the fate of Bellaire’s dream for an urban village downtown will be permanently determined and there will be no going back.

*****

Medical Loop 610 note: (Bellaire’s Loop 610 medical community includes Memorial Hermann, Texas Children’s, Kindred Healthcare, McGovern Clinic – plus a new major facility for UT Physicians, which leased 140,000 SF at 6500 West Loop South.)

*****

ZONING — Sec. 24-537. – Urban village-downtown district (UV-D). Bellaire, Texas

  1. Purpose.

(1) Generally. This district provides for a mix of uses and style of development intended to reinforce the “small town” downtown feel desired by Bellaire residents, including opportunities for shopping, services, dining and entertainment. While Bellaire residents and visitors frequent the area for convenience shopping and multi-purpose trips, it has not offered the typical experience of a destination downtown given how this primary commercial area in Bellaire developed over time without a traditional Main Street or other focal point for typical downtown amenities. The district is also a high-profile area of the community given its proximity to busy Bellaire Boulevard and its bifurcation by the Bissonnet diagonal. District standards require that more visible landscaping and green elements be incorporated on all sites, including within off-street parking areas and any higher-intensity residential or mixed-use developments that emerge within the district.

(2) Character. This district is intended to support a transition to a more urban development character through redevelopment in the core downtown area. This could provide the critical mass the area has always lacked to spur greater foot traffic and extended visits that are essential to a vibrant mix of retail, service and hospitality businesses. Encouraging housing options adds another important element by putting full-time residents in the area with expectations for a safe and hospitable environment in which to live, recreate, and host guests and visitors. Keys to an Urban character are relatively small block sizes (or pedestrian routes through larger blocks), more intensive site development and coverage, reduced reliance on off-street surface parking, and greater architectural enclosure of public streets and spaces to support a pedestrian orientation.

(3) Uses. This district provides for a mix of commercial, office, civic and entertainment uses appropriate for an Urban character setting, and especially for new residential presence to add built-in demand for local shopping and services. Land assembly and master-planned development is encouraged, as is vertical mixing of uses in buildings that accommodate upper-floor residential, office or other uses above street-level retail and services. This pattern is most appropriate in pedestrian-oriented areas, but also along busy arterial streets through the district where frontage properties are less conducive for stand-alone residential use. Unusually shaped and undersized building sites, caused by the diagonal orientation of Bissonnet through the community, pose a particular challenge in some parts of the district, which is also good reason to encourage more vertical development where appropriate.


July 2, 2023 Realty News Report Copyright 2023

Photo credit: Realty News Report Copyright 2023

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